Some Jewish communities see making eco-friendly choices as the Jewish and socially conscious thing to do. I’ve also participated in Jewish meals and events in which environmental choices were the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. In fact, as they cheerfully dump hundreds of disposable paper products and plastic tablecloths into the garbage, I’ve heard people say that this “social action nonsense” is all some liberal craziness that doesn’t have much to do with Jewish practice.
Sometimes, as families grow more comfortable financially, the notions of reuse and salvage seem less attractive. However, for many of us, junk yards and scrap peddling are an important part of our immigrant past. All this came up in conversation recently with my husband.
As we walked past a neighbour’s renovation, there was a 100-year-old wooden door in a rain-sodden trash heap. We’ve been to architectural salvage places in the past, looking for these doors because they match everything else in our old house. They’re well-made and last a long time. Even second-hand, they aren’t cheap. My husband commented that too many folks feel that, “if I can’t use it, it isn’t useful.”
We contrasted this with a famous family story. As a kid, my husband’s family travelled to Toronto to see their Lubavitcher relatives. On the way home to upstate New York, they carried an unusual gift across the border. They strapped a steel security door on top of their car – a gift from a cousin’s scrap yard. In our families, old-school values still ring true. If you need a door and you can get a perfectly good used one, why not?
While Jewish families often cross borders and levels of Jewish practice and observance, how often do we think about the cause and effect of our actions when it comes to the environment?
I began thinking about this more particularly when my kids learned brachot (blessings) at preschool. Each time we thanked G-d for something that grew from a tree, a vine or the ground, we were acknowledging the power and importance of the earth for our well-being.
When attending services, we pray all winter, from Shemini Atzeret through to Passover, for wind to blow and rain to fall. But what if the rain is polluted? What if our lakes, rivers and oceans are filled with microplastics waste?
We need to focus on how we can reduce our consumption and increase our reuse of what we’ve got. If we thank the Almighty and appreciate the earth’s healthy produce, how do we reconcile that, for instance, with the mounds of plastic we create with packaging, disposable cups and bottles, and more? Most of our recycling products travel to China to be processed. Lately, China has gotten stricter in what it will accept. This means that more of our low-quality waste ends up in a landfill here at home. Current research shows it ends up in our water and bodies, too.
The next logical step of our concern is how we vote. If we vote for candidates who support environmental initiatives (the use, for instance, of compostable bags or a plastic bag ban), we vote our values at the polls. Of course, most of us don’t make voting decisions merely on one issue, but what’s the point of voting for someone whose views contradict what we pray about?
These are big issues, and not easily covered in one column. Still, I see reasons to be optimistic. I’ve noticed that some congregations have shifted their usage of plastic. Maybe Kiddush is being served in glass shot glasses instead of plastic cups, or folks are offered ceramic coffee mugs rather than Styrofoam at events. Some Jewish groups do tikkun olam (fixing the world) activities, cleaning up parks or waterfront areas. Others offer digital bulletins or newsletters rather than printing hardcopies and mailing them.
Some say that individuals can’t make any difference; it’s big polluters that we need to stop. Yes, we need to address big pollution as well as practising small-scale change. When you make an effort to reuse, recycle and responsibly discard your waste, it matters. It’s obvious when walking up a back lane that much of this happens one water bottle or overflowing trash can at a time.
We certainly have a lot of business opportunity in Canada, too. We’ve got lots of Hydro “clean” electricity for processing. I wonder what the next stage of the long Jewish tradition of reuse (scrap yards and junk peddling) might be. In the meantime, start with your next big holiday meal. Could you skip the paper plates or Styrofoam coffee cups and wash some dishes instead?
There is no sense in teaching our kids to say thank you for what they eat and how it grows, or how to be grateful for rain, if we don’t make an effort to keep the world alive and healthy for future generations. Is this a Jewish value or a human one? If we are truly “a light unto the nations” as Jews, we must do this work, and show others how to do it. We can innovate on these earth-saving issues here, educate others elsewhere and pass this knowledge on. We may find ourselves buried under a mountain of plastics and garbage if we don’t.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.